Preparing for the Onrushing Educational Tsunami

by Staff Writers

There can be no doubt that there is a storm brewing in education. New technology-based saviors pop up on a weekly basis, some higher ed institutions are failing, or are in danger of failing, parental firing squads are being formed to oust teachers and administrators, and innovators from outside of the education establishment are gaining a foothold in reforming what learning looks like. Many feel that the change underway in education will eventually lead to an increase in online learning and open education options. Dickinson College President Bill Durden sets forth a different view of what this onrushing change will bring, refuting the idea that the future of higher education is online.

(Dickinson College President William Durden – Carlisle Sentinel, 5 April, 2012)

Dueling Tsunamis
On the one hand there are established entities within higher education who, according to Durden, are not just trying to withstand this storm, but that are driving it forward and increasing its intensity:

"In a recent Wall Street Journal interview about college costs and online learning, Stanford University President John Hennessy said, ‘What I told my colleagues is there's a tsunami coming. I can't tell you exactly how it's going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there.' Stanford and other elite institutions, such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are not sitting back and waiting for technology to disrupt higher education — they are out there experimenting with both delivery formats and cost. They are part of the change. This is why they are elite. They boldly anticipate. And they have the wealth, confidence and the unassailable market niche to do so" (Durden, 11 June, 2012)

Durden refutes the idea that these institutions are accurately anticipating what the real, long-term changes in higher education will look like. Instead, he believes that the emerging model will be something much different and older, and that online and open options will merely be tools in a new age of "everywhere, anywhere, anytime" education.

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
"I can go anyway, way I choose / I can live anyhow, win or lose / I can go anywhere, for something new / Anyway, anyhow, anywhere I choose" (The Who, 1965)

Not only does Durden's concept sound like the classic song, it also sounds a lot like technology-facilitated learning in which portable, connected devices, advanced online learning networks, and semantic-enabled software make learning possible "anyway, anywhere, anytime." So what exactly is different about Durden's vision? A closer examination of his points provides some insight.

  • "Everywhere, Anywhere": Learning, both formal and informal, happens in every context of a person's life. More importantly, this learning can and should happen through an active individual effort and through any means available.
  • "Anytime": According to Durden, anytime, refers to the idea that education should be a process of lifelong learning. Because of the rapid changes in technology and society, an individual can never rest on what they already know, but must continually strive to learn new skills. Durden does point out that (residentially acquired) skill such as critical thinking, leadership, and historical knowledge never become outdated.

The point of all this rhetoric on Durden's part is to ultimately claim that only through residential learning experiences can immature 18-21 year olds be brought into the fold as educated, informed participants in a democracy.

Won't Get Fooled Again
"I'll tip my hat to the new constitution / Take a bow for the new revolution / Smile and grin at the change all around me / Pick up my guitar and play / Just like yesterday / We don't get fooled again / Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss" (The Who, 1971)

Really, though there is no difference between what Durden states education should be and what online learning strives to be. Through portable devices and advanced learning networks, students can and do learn everywhere, anywhere, and at any time. Technologically mediated connections to others, whether instructors or peers, enhance the anywhere/anytime experience for students. Certainly there is a benefit to being on a campus and situated within an environment where much of the focus is on learning. But campus life certainly is not 100% about academics. Residential college life is as much about athletics, socialization, and partying as it is about formal learning. The non-academic world is also far from devoid of intellectually engaging activities, particularly in the DIY society we currently inhabit. According to Durden's own words, learning "happens also in the home, on the job, at places of worship and through individual initiative" (Durden, 11 June, 2012).

Taken in this context, NOT being on a campus, but rather working and attending classes online and interacting with the world beyond the ivory tower may well present students with increased opportunities to become mature, lifelong learners – Individuals who are well-equipped to participate in a democracy because they live in one and are required to function within it on a daily basis. The 2008 Presidential Election marked a new era of Digital Democracy and students need to be exposed to advanced communication technology in every way possible to assure that they are prepared for this new model of civic participation. There is no reason that technology and computer-mediated networks cannot facilitate the same sorts of intellectual growth that Durden sees as the sole domain of the elite residential college.

Liberal Arts Technophobia
From my own time spent on Durden's campus I have come to realize that there is a great deal of technophobia inherent in the liberal arts model. This is a long-standing criticism of liberal education as pointed out by Todd Kelley in his article Liberal Arts Education and Information Technology: Time for Another Renewal:

  • Liberal-arts colleges have an obligation to prepare their students for lifelong learning and for the leadership roles they will assume when they graduate.
  • Liberal-arts colleges must demonstrate the use of the most significant approaches to problem solving and communications to have emerged since the invention of the printing press and movable type.
  • Information technology can help liberal-arts colleges meet their unique mission to help students connect ideas and disciplines broadly, think critically, act responsibly and communicate effectively.
  • Twenty-first-century workers must be well prepared and confident in managing technology and its role in all segments of the economy.
  • Prospective students and their parents need to understand the importance of information technology and expect it to be integrated into the curriculum.

A reliance on the residential experience as a substitute for the use of the most advanced technological tools for solving problems, connecting disciplines, and communicating on a global scale, is the main way in which the liberal arts have failed to adapt to the reality of learning in the 21st century.

The Struggle for Relevance
Reading Durden's piece from the perspective of someone both with a liberal arts education (from Durden's own institution) and with an advanced degree in learning technology (Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology), I see it as something that was evident during my time on Dickinson's campus. Dickinson and many other liberal arts institutions outside of the top tier are afraid of becoming irrelevant or fading from existence all together.

The world is moving beyond the need for a majority of students to be educated on campus, and the current furor over the cost of higher education means that many fringe residential institutions may eventually become extinct. This is a more pressing problem for the liberal arts than for other higher ed sectors as this form of "distinctively American education" is suffering from an identity crisis because of its inability to reconcile the perceived lack of educational focus with the high cost of the residential experience.

Understanding the difference between cost and value in education is critical to seeing where institutions such as Durden's see themselves. They believe that there is sufficient value in their offerings to justify the high costs. As the product of such an education I agree, but I also believe that liberal arts institutions are not providing all the value that they could if they do not embrace the coming tsunami of online and mobile learning. Much of what I learned as a liberal arts student can also be learned online as I outlined in The Challenge of Crafting a Liberal-Arts Education for the Online Learner (19 Sept., 2011). In order for these schools to stay relevant in the 21st century they will need to radically rethink their curriculums and the model of what a liberal education should be in the information age. There is a niche for forward-thinking liberal arts colleges who can ride the coming wave alongside Stanford, Harvard, and MIT.

Durden has it wrong. The onrushing tsunami is online learning and technology-enhanced, portable education – Something that the liberal arts have always fought against. If they try to stand against this particular wave however, they are likely to be washed out to sea and never heard from again.

Join the conversation on Google+ or on Twitter @drjwmarquis.

Statement of full disclosure: The subject of this post is a June 1, 2012 story in Inside Higher Ed written by my former boss Bill Durden, former president of Dickinson College. I worked in the media relations office for Dickinson and was responsible for filming, editing, and decoding much of Dr. Durden's communication with the world. That said, I am extremely familiar with his world view, perhaps unfairly so. This does however give me some unique insight into his views on "The Real Tsunami" that he predicts for higher education.